Home Featured Penwern Pt. 1: Bringing Back To Life an Historic Frank Lloyd Wright Estate

Penwern Pt. 1: Bringing Back To Life an Historic Frank Lloyd Wright Estate


An estate on Delavan Lake designed by Frank Lloyd Wright has undergone a 25-year restoration project to bring it back to its original glory. Wright was commissioned by wealthy Chicago businessman Fred B. Jones to design his summer getaway, built in stages from 1900-1903. When completed, the grounds included the main house, a gatehouse, a stable and a greenhouse. Wright himself named the estate Penwern.

Since 1994, Penwern has been owned by Sue and John Major, only the fourth owners of the property. When they first purchased it, they were simply drawn to the beauty of the setting and the unique structure of the home. When they realized they had a historic gem, they became the stewards of the property, carefully restoring it according to original architectural drawings.

John Major explained that when they took possession of the home, previous owners had taken the time to locate drawings of the original design. “They were not in good condition, but still, we had 17 pages and an awareness that it was a Frank Lloyd Wright property. From that point on, we committed to continuously renovate it to make it look more and more like it did originally,” he said.

One of Wright’s design principles, harmony with nature, is evident at Penwern. Even though the house is two-storied, it visually appears to be low to the ground. Set on a fieldstone foundation, the exterior is faced with board and batten siding. Broad arches span the front veranda and the porte-cochère. With a covered walkway overhead, the porte-cochère connects the house to a tower annex. The interior spaces encompass 5,600 square feet. Inside, the living room opens on to a porch across the full length of the house. There was also a billiards room, dining room, and kitchen area. The tower annex was used as a poker room by male visitors, complete with a built-in urinal. Another interesting feature of the home were three copper faucets installed throughout, which dispensed whiskey and water, reputedly the drink of choice of Jones. The boathouse too was built with a fieldstone foundation and designed so the lake view from the house would not be blocked.

“Visualize the home in 1902,” Major said. “The amount of things they had to think about in how do you make a property like this livable and usable when there is no electricity is really overwhelming. The main house was actually an unheated summer home, but a gatehouse was constructed as a year-round home for the caretakers.”

Major said there also was an icehouse in the stable to store blocks of ice harvested from Delavan Lake in the winter. To keep the workers from freezing and frostbite, the lower section of the boathouse was equipped with a fireplace.

“The main house has a number of unique things,” Major said. “Frank Lloyd Wright was noted for a particular type of brick fireplaces — Roman brick — and this house has four of them. Typical of Frank Lloyd Wright, the doorways are small, but they take you into very large spaces. The great room in this house is about 30 x 40 feet with a 14- or 15-foot ceiling.”

“The house has evolved through the years as people made changes, some invisible like heating and electricity and then additions which needed to be removed. Because we are just the fourth owners, that allowed us to keep track of what changed from the original,” Major said.

Working with Copenhagen Construction and its owner, master builder Bill Orkild, a myriad of improvements were undertaken, including: reinforcing the home’s second floor to avoid collapse; removing additions not in the original plan; removing 75 old radiators; re-paneing the majority of the 115 diamond-pane windows; new flooring; restoring four fireplaces; re-mortaring stone walls; insulating the property; replacing electrical wiring; and putting on a new roof. The Majors also added bathrooms as the original design only had one and took three rooms servants used for food preparation and made it into one large up-to-date kitchen. Among the most visible restoration was the rebuilding of the boathouse, which was destroyed by fire in 1978. Because of a moratorium on building boathouses on Wisconsin lakes, rebuilding required a heroic effort on part of the Frank Lloyd Wright people encouraging the state and the DNR in granting approval.

Staying as true to the original as they endeavored, they occasionally find an oversight they quickly correct. Major cited an example of a gatehouse addition. “We removed the addition, but a Frank Lloyd Wright aficionado looking at the property said we removed the addition but didn’t remove the doors. He said there should be a window there instead. We then were able to find in the stable the window that used to be in that spot. We took the doors down and put the original window in.”

Another example is the home’s safe room, that was originally hidden behind a built-in liquor cabinet. “Back then it was where important papers and valuables were kept safe,” Major said. “Previous owners converted it to a bathroom, but we made it back into a safe room. Well, we had a group of high school kids tour the home and we showed them the room hidden behind the built-in cabinets. One said to me that the room’s window shouldn’t be there. But because it was a bathroom, it had to have a window. So, I said to myself, if a high school kid can spot it that easily, we’re going to get that window removed. We did and now the safe room looks exactly as it did in 1902.”

The last part of Penwern’s renovation was rebuilding a greenhouse constructed in 1903. The greenhouse was part of the estate’s gatehouse, constructed between the gate lodge water tower and a boulder wall.

“The greenhouse over the years decayed and was eventually allowed to fall in on itself,” said John Major. “Previous owners put a carport there and used it for parking.”

While Jones liked to cultivate roses, the Majors saw the greenhouse repurposed for multiuse, not only for personal relaxation, but also as an entertainment space. But staying true to the complete historical renovation of Penwern, the Majors were committed to rebuild the greenhouse as close to the original as possible, but with some modern amenities. “We chose to have the greenhouse heated and cooled so it could be used year-round. That raised some interesting challenges because of where to put all the mechanicals,” he said.

H. J. Faust Heating & Air Conditioning of Burlington was chosen to provide the comfort systems in the greenhouse. The project planning and construction took about 18 months.

“It turned out to be a complex project,” Major said. “It was originally not just a greenhouse, but an extensive garden area in a 30- or 40-foot radius circle and that had a 6-foot-high wall around it. A third of it collapsed, so in addition to the greenhouse, we had that boulder wall reconstructed and developed that space to be used as a patio.”

Penwern is one of five Frank Lloyd Wright homes built on the South Shore of Delavan Lake in the early 20th century. The name Penwern is Welsh and means “head of the field” and it is believed Wright named it that after the ancestral home of his great grandmother, who immigrated to Wisconsin in the late 1800s from her Welsh village named Penwern. The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.